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A Room of One’s Own

Virginia Woolf

Chapter 5

Chapter 4

Chapter 6

Summary

Moving on to "the shelves which hold books by the living," the narrator finds that women are currently writing nearly as many books as men, and that they are not only novels. "There are books on all sorts of subjects which a generation ago no woman could have touched." In assessing the change has occurred in women's writing in her own generation, the narrator pulls down a novel called Life's Adventure by Mary Carmichael. It is her first novel. Looking to see what this young writer has inherited from women of the past—both writers and non-writers, both "their characteristics and restrictions"—she first decides that the prose is not as good as Jane Austen's. "The smooth gliding of sentence after sentence was interrupted. Something tore, something scratched." She soon revises her opinion, however, noting that Miss Carmichael's writing actually has nothing in common with Austen's; it is attempting something completely different. "First she broke the sentence; now she has broken the sequence. Very well, she has every right to do both these things if she does them not for the sake of breaking, but for the sake of creating."

The decisive moment in Mary Carmichael's innovation comes with the words, "Chloe liked Olivia." The narrator stands slackjawed. How rarely, she realizes, has literature presented real, amicable relationships between women! Women were always, at least until the nineteenth century, considered in their relationship to men, and this has resulted in a huge and grave omission from literary history, and all history. "Hence, perhaps, the peculiar nature of woman in fiction; the astonishing extremes of her beauty and horror; her alternations between heavenly goodness and hellish depravity—for so a lover would see her as his love rose or sank, was prosperous or unhappy." Women also, in Carmichael's book, have interests and pursuits outside the home. Chloe and Olivia work together in a laboratory, a fact which greatly changes the kind of friends they can be. The narrator begins to think that an importance transition has occurred, "for if Chloe likes Olivia and Mary Carmichael knows how to express it she will light a torch in that vast chamber where nobody has yet been." The real, unrecorded experience of women in solitude has been so little handled that its expression will stretch the existing resources of the English language.

Mary Carmichael will have her work cut out for her, the narrator fondly acknowledges. She does not represent the culmination of the literary development Woolf has in mind, "for she will still be encumbered with that self-consciousness" that keeps her in the realm of "the nature-novelist" rather than the contemplative artist. She will have to learn not only to tell the truth about women, but also to tell, gently and without rancor, that bit of truth about men that has gone untold because it is what they cannot see in themselves. But if Miss Carmichael does not have the genius of Austen or Eliot, the narrator observes, she has certain advantages—not just as a person but also as a writer—unknown to them. Her writing shows no rancor against men, and no resentment against her situation in life. "Fear and hatred were almost gone, or traces of them showed only in a slight exaggeration of the joy of freedom." In another hundred years, the author concludes, and with five hundred pounds and a room of her own, this Mary Carmichael will be a poet.

Commentary

Mary Carmichael is the literary heir not only to the great women writers discussed in the previous chapter, but also "the descendent of all those other women whose circumstances I have been glancing at." Yet she takes on something very different than they would have attempted. Woolf gives us a little lesson in reading experimental writing (like Woolf's own), reminding us that "she has every right" to attempt new forms and styles, as long as she is creating something new rather than merely destroying what has gone before. Carmichael represents Woolf's take on the state of women's fiction in her own historical moment. She sees the female literary tradition as being poised on the verge of something unprecedented and exciting, and she takes the opportunity to point out its current shortcomings and to articulate a direction for the future.

"The natural simplicity, the epic age of women's writing may have gone," remarks the narrator, in reviewing the range of subjects upon which women in her own time have made themselves authors. This is the next logical step from Woolf's historical identification of "a woman's sentence." Although she draws attention to the idea that there is a natural way for women to write, a distinctive "woman's sentence," for example, she is also open to the idea that even that naturalness may be historically contingent. As women change, and as their social roles and circumstantial realities evolve, what is "natural" to them will presumably change as well. Such a change will indeed be for the better: "She may begin to use writing as an art, not as a method of self-expression." When this happens, will there still be such a thing as a "woman's sentence"? Woolf imagines so, for she wants to preserve the richness of difference between men and women. But it must be as flexible and evolving as women themselves.

Women have a creative power that differs substantially from that of men, one that has found expression, even in bygone ages, in non-literary ways. Education, she argues, should bring out those differences rather than enforcing similarity, and so acknowledge and enhance the richness and variety of human culture. "For we have too much likeness as it is."

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